My Farm and Fibre Focused Holiday in Scotland
Submitted By Karen Clark
I just returned from an amazing 2 week trip to Scotland with my daughter, Fiona and partner John, where I had a great time and learned so much about sheep farming, wool fibre, yarn and was inspired and awed by the lace and Fair Isle knitting there. Fiona was returning to the Shetland Islands in Scotland to finish some of her research for her PhD on transitioning to renewable energy (the first community-owned tidal turbine is located on Shetland). She is an avid knitter and spinner and on her first visit she heard a lot about Wool Week so thought this was an opportunity to combine her school work with pleasure and go during this annual festival. Fiona suggested I join her and before I knew it I, along with John my partner (who did not want to be left behind) had our trip planned.
Our first week before going to Shetland was a holiday rental on a sheep farm in a renovated ‘steading’ or barn that was attached to a larger modern working barn near Inverbervie, south of Aberdeen. After an 11 hr delay at Heathrow airport before our flight to Aberdeen, we did not arrive at our holiday rental until midnight but fortunately the owners kindly insisted on waiting up for our late arrival. The drive from the Aberdeen airport was beautiful with the full moon on the North Sea often in view and not a car on the roads. After only one wrong turn on the maze of single track roads with no signage from Inverbervie we arrived with no idea of what the land looked like. The owner’s partner was waiting out near the road admiring the full moon having just finished a Lagavulin scotch (or 2?) and helped us get settled in. We woke in the morning to see sheep being herded down the road in front of our windows into the pen next to the barn.
Our 2 bedroom cottage was wonderful with a view of an inner courtyard flower garden on one side and on the opposite side we could see fields with sheep and watch their movements as they were rotated between the fields. Galahad, the horse always kept track of all the activity. It was also interesting to experience staying in the middle of a wind farm. It was fascinating to watch the speed of the blades or see birds expertly fly between the blades. The farm and rental are operated to high environmentally responsible standards. The owners have their own wind turbine, collect rainwater for use in toilets and irrigation and use unscented cleaning products. It was great with my chemical sensitivities to be able to sleep in the beds!
The owner Seonaid runs the farm of about 100 Shetland cross welsh sheep with help from her partner and daughter who both work in Aberdeen in the oil and gas industry. Seonaid is passionate about sheep farming and supporting local farming in general. This area called the Howe o’Mearns is the bread basket of Scotland producing grains, potatoes, berries, flax oil seed, lamb, beef and dairy. Fresh seafood is readily available in the fishing villages on the coast. We prepared many delicious meals with all the local fresh food in our well equipped kitchen. Seonaid grew up on a sheep farm and Anniston Farm has been a long term project which she has restored with renovations to the main house, building of a modern barn and renovations to the steading for holiday lettings. Fencing has all been replaced and the approximately 100 sheep are rotated through the fields. Male lambs when they reach 40-42 pounds are taken to a local abattoir and sold fresh the next day at the Tesco in Montrose. Female lambs are kept for future breeding. Legally all sheep in the UK must be shorn at least once a year. The British Wool Marketing Board buys all fleeces which are graded based on breed, fibre length, cleanliness, fibre diameter, crimp and other characteristics. Lower quality fibre is used for house insulation products and other creative uses with the majority being sent to eastern European countries for making carpets. Higher quality fleece is used to produce yarn for fabric and knitwear. Farmers are paid for the fleece based on the quality and current market value which ranges from $0.60 to up to $6.00/kilogram for high quality fibre for knitwear. The average sheep fleece weighs about 3 kilograms and it costs about $10 to have a sheep shorn. Seonaid wanted Shetlands because they are a small breed that easily have their lambs without complications like some other larger breeds. She crosses them with Welsh sheep to give them some hardiness for the damp climate and soils in the area. The sheep are shorn in the summer all in one day with only one shearer who takes under 2 minutes to shear each sheep. Seonaid takes each fleece, shakes off the dirt and tightly rolls it and ties it in a ball which is passed to Ruth her daughter who tightly packs it in a large canvas square bag. Ruth stands in the bag packing down the balls of fibre which must be packed in a definite pattern of alternating layers so the bag can hold 30 fleeces. Even the packing of the bag will influence the price that will be paid for the bale of fibre.
This is a beautiful quiet area of Scotland with interesting market towns nearby at Stonehaven and Laurencekirk. With Scotland’s ‘right to roam’ on crown and private land for any purpose and a right to cross land it is fun to head out and explore. We walked many kilometers along the single track roads through the farms near our rental. The tracks will often pass through the middle of a farm yard even the large dairy farms that are common in the area. Conventional dairy farms have changed dramatically (as they have here) and now many have cows that are kept in large barns and grains and silage are grown in the surrounding fields for feed which once would have been used for pasture. This greatly increases the milk production of the farm. Only cattle for beef or organic dairy farms use the fields for pasture. There are also many public footpaths as there are everywhere in the UK. One by the sea was a stunning cliff walk past Dunnottar Castle where puffins and other seabirds breed on the cliffs below.
After a very interesting, comfortable and relaxing week at Anniston Farm we headed up to Inverness where Fiona ran the Loch Ness Marathon (42km) and I ran the 10 km Race. The routes were beautiful along the Ness River with almost 10,000 people participating. Running and walking are very popular for all ages in the UK. After the race we headed back to Aberdeen to fly to Shetland.
We arrived on a beautiful sunny day at the Shetland airport on the southern tip of the Shetland Mainland, the largest of the over 100 Shetland Islands. We had an exciting start to the trip since we didn’t realize that the road out of the airport crosses the runway. We thought a sign with lights flashing meant “Stop” rather than “Go faster and get off the runway”. Fortunately, a police car came racing up behind us siren going and lights flashing to shew us off the runway before the plane came down! The rest of the drive was uneventful and breath taking. Since there are no trees anywhere and there are many steep cliffs to the sea the land scape is stunning. It is usually windy too so there are often huge waves crashing on shore. There are approximately 22,000 people living on the Shetland Islands with about 7,500 in Lerwick, the largest town which is in the centre of the Mainland Island and where we had a rental for the week. Wool Week activities were happening all over the Shetland Isles with Lerwick being the centre of all the activity.
Our rental accommodation was in the centre of Lerwick down a narrow footpath cobble lane just off the High Street. It was a great location within walking distance of many of the Wool Week activities with a great view of the harbour as well as close to a number of pubs with ‘sessions’ (impromptu music jams with fiddles, whistles, guitar etc.). The focus of all the activities is to celebrate Shetland’s textile heritage from the sheep to the textile industry. Even though over a hundred classes were offered during the week Fiona and I decided not to sign up for any since there were so many other talks, tours, shows and drop in sessions. In the end we still did not get to go to all the things we had wanted to since there was so much to see and do (www.shetlandwoolweek.com). People come from all over the world for this celebration and most of the workshops were sold out.
There are many guilds of knitters, weavers, dyers and spinners in most of the small communities who are keeping the textile traditions of the Shetlands alive spinning cobweb weight yarns and knitting wedding ring shawls (that are so light and fine they can pass through a wedding ring) and intricate Fair Isle clothing. It was so amazing to see how many of the local people and their children wear Fair Isle sweaters, hats etc. With clothing becoming cheap and the arrival of oil and gas production in the North Sea which is operated primarily from the north end of Mainland Island there is no longer pressure for production of fibre and textiles to be a way to earn an income as it was in the past. There is great pride in the sheep and textile heritage which is being kept alive by museums and educational programs. In Lerwick there is an excellent Shetland Museum and Archives with a large collection of historical textiles as well as a separate textile museum both with large displays.
The shops on the High Street had intricate Fair Isle and fine lace knitting in their windows with many items for sale. There are several shops run by designers who have gone to the Shetland College, School of Textile Arts and sell knitwear they have designed and knit. In a move to preserve the knitting history and heritage there was a recognition of a need to make the traditional knits more affordable so machine or ‘frame’ knitting is now taught at the college and used by many knitters. The pieces are knit on the machine but still finished by hand. In some cases such as yolk sweaters the yolk is knit by hand but the plain knitting is done on a machine. I could not resist purchasing 2 sweaters that are frame knit, and the fingerless gloves that are hand knit.
There are 2 companies committed to producing yarn from native Shetland sheep. Their yarns are shipped around the world. Jamiesons is a family owned business, which has specialised in producing yarn from native Shetland sheep fleece for 5 generations since the 1890s. In 1981 they opened the only commercial woollen mill on the islands which includes grading, scouring and dyeing fleece before colour blending, carding, spinning, twisting and balling to produce their 100% pure Shetland yarns. A disagreement in the family about whether to send the fibre off island to be processed led to part of the family creating a separate company operating in Lerwick, Jamiesons and Smiths which hand grades and sorts fleece but sends it to an environmentally friendly processing plant in Howarth England. Both companies offer a wide range of colours and weights of yarn suitable for Fair Isle and lace knitting.
Jamiesons and Smith shop and warehouse in Lerwick is like a candy shop for knitters with the walls filled floor to ceiling with over 100 colours, 1 ply cobweb weight to chunky some offered spun woollen or worsted. There are display cases with fine lace shawls and Fair Isle sweaters some that are for sale. During Wool Week the shop was a beehive of activity with workshops going on and people buying yarn. There was also a lot of discussion of how to get all this yarn back home and if it might be worth buying another suitcase.
We went in the warehouse which is adjacent to the shop and had the fleece sorting explained by Jan who is a crofter and very committed to the fibre industry and maintaining pure bred Shetland sheep. Jamiesons and Smith buys about 80% of the fleece from the islands. The fineness and soft character of Shetland fleece is attributed to the harsh weatherand conditions. Jan showed us fleece from sheep that grazed on grass and had a much longer staple and less crimp so considered poorer quality than those grazing amongst the heather on the hillsides where they fleece grows more slowly. They have 5 grades of fleece with only the top 2 from purebred Shetland breed that are fine, with good crimp and clean being used for yarn. The other lower grades are used for home products including rugs, duvets, and cushions. Jan told us about the concern that the Shetland breed is diminishing since many sheep are now being crossed with other breeds to produce a larger sheep since farmers can make more money in meat sales than for fibre. Consequently, the volume of quality native Shetland fibre is diminishing each year. There is the hope that with growing interest in knitting and textile arts that the demand for Shetland yarns will become more profitable.
The other yarn company, Jamiesons of Shetland has a shop on the High Street in Lerwick as well as one at their woollen mill in Sandhurst where the grading, scouring and dyeing fleece before colour blending, carding, spinning, twisting and balling is done to produce their 100% pure Shetland yarns. Both shops are a feast for the eyes. They offer over an amazing 200 colours/shades of double knitting yarn which is traditionally the weight used for Fair Isle knitting. They also produce cobweb weight to chunky in a wide range of colours.
The woollen mill in Sandness is about an hour drive from Lerwick. The last part of the road is a single track with lay bys. It is a beautiful drive through an area inhabited mainly by sheep and Shetland ponies. About 50 people are employed at the mill.
They were happy to let us wander around amongst all the machines where the colour blending, carding, spinning, twisting and balling was in progress and were happy to answer our questions. Recognising the urgent need to increase production, the Jamieson family were among the first in the islands to harness computerised frame knitting technology. Combining this technology with the 100% pure Shetland yarn produced in their mill, allows the highly complex traditional Fair Isle patterns to be re-created in an increasing range of both traditional and vibrant contemporary colours. Jamieson’s spinning installed weaving looms and now produce an extensive range of genuine Shetland Tweeds and blankets.
Another highlight of the trip was to have the opportunity to go to the Shetland Flock Book and Fine Fleece Prizegiving which is the only accredited sale of Shetland rams and ram lambs with over 200 entrants from 50 breeders. We could go into the barn and wander around to see the sheep and happened to run into Jan again who was helping one of the judges have a close look at each sheep before he had to judge them in the ring. They were both happy to explain all the characteristics of a quality ram and its fleece. The length of the staple, not too long and not too short, lots of crimp, fine but not too fine, and colour. Physical characteristics of the ram for breeding are also important.
Many farmers were looking at the rams and there was an air of excitement since there was also going to be an auction in the afternoon after the judging. It was obvious buyers were whispering amongst themselves scrutinizing the rams. The sellers were anxious that their rams would win prizes to increase their value. Jan said that last year she gave up bidding on a ram when the price went over $1,500. During judging the sheep were brought in the ring. The judge walked around looking at all the sheep never saying a word. He would point with his shepherd’s crook at a sheep and a helper would grab him by the horns and line up at the front. When 5 rams were lined up the judge would have a final look at them and ribbons were pinned on their backs. It would have been interesting to stay for the auction but this was our last day and we wanted to go to the ‘Makers Market’ a craft show of all things Shetland fibre. There were many beautiful Shetland wool pieces for sale which is where I bought the Fair Isle gloves in the photo earlier.
Shetland Wool Week exceeded my expectations and I would definitely go back again. It was wonderful to see the work of so many skilled spinners, and knitters of all ages and the support and pride Shetland people have in their sheep and textile heritage. The people were warm and friendly and the landscape is stunningly beautiful. I was sad to get on the ferry to return to Aberdeen.